Did Welfare Reform Work?

poverty rate

Fifteen years after we passed welfare reform, did it work?  Ezra Klein takes on this question today.

“If welfare reform was meant to cut the rolls, then it definitely worked.  And if it was meant to give states the flexibility to cut their spending on the program, it definitely worked. . . If you think the point of the program is to help the poor, then no, welfare reform is not working.

As Jake Blumgart writes at The American Prospect, the reformed program “has failed to cushion the neediest through recessions. While in 2009 the food-stamp program responded to the increased need for government assistance, growing by 57 per cent, the number of TANF caseloads merely inched upward…At the heart of the worst recession in 80 years, TANF funds only reached 4.5 million families, or 28 per cent of those living in poverty. By contrast, in 1995, the old welfare system covered 13.5 million families, or 75 per cent of those living in poverty.”

Another possible definition of “working” is that the program has helped or forced a lot of low-income Americans, and particularly single mothers, find jobs.”

Ezra includes this graph from the centre on Budget and Policy Priorities as evidence that welfare reform has not “worked” in any real sense.  As you can see, the percentage of poor families receiving TANF (the successor to AFDC, aka “welfare”) has fallen dramatically since welfare reform was enacted.

But I’m not sure why this is supposed to be an indictment of the system.  Why is it a problem that fewer poor families are enrolled in a program that is only open to people who aren’t working?  The American Prospect and the centre on Budget and Policy Priorities can’t possibly be lamenting the fact that we no longer have more than 70% of our poorest families on a program that has unemployment as a prerequisite.  But the way this graph is used makes it sound like they consider this regrettable.

Ezra mentions that reform moved many welfare mothers into jobs, but I think he gives this short shrift.  Leave aside the tiresome bourgeois morality which wants to see people trying to support themselves before they turn to the generosity of their neighbours.  People are not made better off by a program that encourages them not to work–as AFDC indisputably did, given the decline in the rolls.  

Don’t get me wrong: it’s entirely understandable that people would prefer to collect welfare rather than work long hours at an unpleasant low-wage job.  But someone who collects welfare today rather than go to work for $7 an hour is very likely to be collecting welfare 10 years from now, when it will still be a rather joyless existence hemmed in by lack of money and the whims of the bureaucracy.  Someone who is working at anything has their feet on a path that might actually lead somewhere.  As anyone who has suffered through a long spell of unemployment can attest, it’s hard to get back into the workforce if you’ve been out of it a while.  Harder still if you were never really in it, developing basic skills like showing up on time every day and handling difficult customers.

Welfare enabled people to make bad long-term decisions that were rational short-term choices.  Welfare reform changed that.  That’s good news.

Of course, it’s bad news that the mothers who went out to work didn’t all gain the comfortable middle class existence we’d ultimately like for them.  But there was still a noticeable decline in the number of poor families that persisted even into the early years of the Great Recession:

poverty rate

This looks like a modest but real success to me at weaning families from welfare dependency.  Even at the nadir of the worst recession in 80 years, the percentage of families in poverty–as well as the percentage of families on TANF–was below pre-reform levels.  Unless you really think that these families would be better off spending the rest of their lives on the dole, this seems like a real achievement.  

There’s another reason that progressives should celebrate: changing the structure of welfare has eroded much of the opposition to it.  As long as people felt like welfare was a way for people to simply live off of tax dollars without working, there was bound to be a lot of opposition to the program.  Restructuring it as temporary assistance for those who are overwhelmed by unexpected circumstances has essentially whittled that opposition down to nothing.  When was the last time that welfare came up in an election?

Sure, maybe progressives would prefer that a generous system of benefits for anyone who wanted them was the uncontroversial norm–but that doesn’t really seem very realistic in a pluralistic and fairly conservative country like America.  By ending welfare as we knew it, Clinton preserved the safety net for people who really can’t cope.  If he hadn’t, welfare mothers would now be competing with retirees for money in the Great Deficit Reduction Olympics.  And I think we all know who would have lost that race.

This post originally appeared in The Atlantic.

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